Skip to main content

The day I sailed a sea monster

The engine roared, and the yacht with the spellbinding paint job heeled over to make it easier for the less-than-athletic specimens of the media horde to climb on deck. The scene was more reminiscent of a metro bus that “kneels” to help riders board than an all-out extreme ocean racer.Mar Mostro — Italian for sea monster — the new Volvo Open 70 of the Puma Ocean Racing team, was on her best behavior on a calm Narragansett Bay, her movable ballast producing dramatic heel while the boat was practically inert. She’s a third-generation VO 70, built at New England Boatworks in Portsmouth, R.I., and based in Newport. My visit came a few days before the boat entered the 2011 Transatlantic Race, where it was going to finish preparations for the nine-stage, nine-month, 39,000-mile Volvo Ocean Race, which starts Oct. 29 in Alicante, Spain.Mar Mostro was conceived for one job and one job only: Win, baby. There are two distinct elements to this. One is going fast, reaching 40 knots while covering 600-plus miles a day in ideal conditions. Such speeds are possible because the ballast under the boat can be hydraulically angled 40 degrees to windward. To keep the boat from slipping sideways, two giant daggerboards can be deployed.

Mar Mostro has a shot at becomming the first U.S.-flagged boat to win the Volvo Ocean Race.

The other ingredient is high-modulus carbon fiber, which produces light, stiff, strong structures for hull and rig. The displacement is only 14 tons, as much as a Hanse 495 cruising yacht. Fully half of that is in the keel, which makes a VO 70 the minimum support system for a maximum sail area that tops out at 7,265 square feet under spinnaker.
Then there’s the small matter of getting there. The 2005-06 race, when the VO 70s first were used, was beset by serious keel problems that forced rule modifications. Last time, on a treacherous stage from Cape Town to China, the boats were pounded so hard that many had to put into port for repairs. There’s a fine line between going fast and arriving in one piece. Mar Mostro’s crew, under the command of Newport’s own Ken Read, will have to walk it.
In the coming months the world will be watching the boat with the splashy graphics that depict the tentacles of a giant octopus and a cat leaping from the bow wave. Sponsor Puma, a German sporting goods company, went to great lengths to come up with an eye-candy design. It was hand-painted on the hull by airbrush artist Dean Loucks, of Indiana, who also decorates speedboats, race cars, trucks and aircraft. “I painted [under the boat] lying on my back, like Michelangelo,” Loucks says.
The dress rehearsal for the program was the 3,000-mile dash across the Atlantic in July, which went swimmingly and ended with a win on corrected time. Read says he was “pleasantly shocked” to succeed in a race that he didn’t expect to win. Even though there were no other VO 70s, it fostered optimism that this Juan Kouyoumdjian design could be a big step up from last time, when Puma finished second and was outgunned by a bigger two-boat program. They’ve made their bets and picked a strategy they’ll have to live with. It’s the old coach’s cliché: You win at the end, but you lose early.
“Every strength unfortunately might reveal a slight weakness, so we worked hard to find weaknesses and push the strengths,” Read says. “We sailed around a lot by ourselves, and it’s very easy to get convinced it’s the fastest boat in the world, but we won’t know that for a while.”
The day of reckoning will be upon them soon.

New rules for an old game
At seven confirmed entries, the fleet is a far cry from the 29 boats in 1981-82 (under the Whitbread Round the World Race moniker). However, it’s packed with top-notch talent that includes Camper, a strong team from New Zealand; Groupama, the formidable French syndicate headed by the legendary Franck Cammas; and Telefónica, with Spanish sailing icons Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez.
Groupama and Telefónica also tapped Kouyoumdjian for the design of their boats, simply because he’s “the man” and delivered the winners of the last two races. This time around, Juan K., as he’s also known, also had to consider the effects of new rules.
For instance, no team could build more than one boat, and none has private weather routing. The number of sails allowed for the entire race shrank from 24 to 17, and there are further limitations about what can be put on the boat. All spares have to be stacked on deck. The legs to Dubai and China bring about more upwind sailing.
“It’s a very complex situation,” Kouyoumdjian says. “It’s difficult to tilt this boat for upwind. At the most you can be two-tenths [of a knot] faster, but then you lose 1 or 1.5 knots reaching, so there’s a lot of compromises.”
“We wanted a boat that is easier to sail, and we wanted to make sure that people are in positions where they can excel,” says Puma sailing program manager Kimo Worthington, who was part of the winning EF Language team in the 1997-98 race. The boats were 60-footers then and had internal water ballast. They were fast, but compared with Mar Mostro they were decaf.
“We were wet on the 60, but [a VO 70] is ‘you gotta be kidding me,’ ” Worthington says. “When you’d be doing 20 [knots] on a 60, you’d probably do 25 on the 70.”
The hard chines that run nearly the entire length of the boat, Kouyoumdjian hints, should help the crew keep the pedal to the metal longer without getting hammered quite as hard by the water that’s blasting off the bow as if it’s coming from a fire hydrant.
“In the past, the crew pushed the boat hard in some conditions but were fairly conservative in others,” he says. “I anticipate there will be no room for a conservative approach this time, so they have to push the boats real hard.”
What about safety? Kouyoumdjian did not want to go into construction details, but he suggests that builders now have a much better understanding of resin chemistry and temperature management for curing and cooling the carbon composite laminate to keep it light and strong.

Puma skipper Ken Read

A boat with a singular purpose
If the secret sauce is in the carbon, there were no secrets visible on deck aboard Mar Mostro. The cockpit shows a clear layout and neat organization. Harken’s carbon hardware is impressive and beefy, of course, but no different from what you’d see on other ocean racers.
Control lines — a VO 70 requires a total of 1.2 miles of lines — run under the deck to the rope clutches, and the tails disappear in mesh sheet pockets. There might be 11 buff sailors on board, but a rotating watch of four mostly sails the boat, so it is set up for shorthanded operation.
To me, there was more intrigue below, where no cameras were allowed and few of my colleagues ventured because it was dark, hot and humid in that giant carbon cavern. The minimalist interior is all carbon, too, just like the semicardanic pipe berths fitted with tiny electric fans as a token tribute to creature comfort.
Read and navigator Tom Addis, a mathematician, will spend a lot of time on the swinging seat at the nav table, which is choked with electronics and displays. Sailing such a rocket well also is a matter of crunching numbers, so spreadsheet software is essential to dissect weather data, wind speed and angle, polar data points and more.
Gadgets need power, and that’s why this sailboat has not one but two engines, supplied by race sponsor Volvo, of course. There’s a 75-hp Volvo Penta diesel for propulsion and to drive the hydraulics that move the ballast, and a smaller auxiliary that doubles as a genset. If both engines conk out, the ballast can be moved by DC electric power or, that failing, by raw muscle. By rule, some power will have to be generated from renewable sources, such as flexible thin-film solar panels.
Another facet of the Volvo Ocean Race is the steady flow of breathtaking images that are shot by a dedicated crewmember and beamed to your desktop via Inmarsat. On Mar Mostro this job falls to Arden Oksanen, a non-sailor who hails from Wyoming and specializes in filming extreme adventures. He’ll also double as the purser, the one guy you’d really need to be friends with on such a long and arduous voyage.
“Be good to the media guy, and he’ll be good to you,” bowman and “tour guide” Casey Smith says with a chuckle, probably dreaming about secret stashes of candy bars.

Flying the U.S. flag
When my time came to take a trick at the wheel, I was surprised how light the helm was and how readily she trucked along at 9 knots in barely 7 knots of true wind speed. Goat Island grew really big, really fast when suddenly one of the crew seized the other wheel and jerked the boat hard to port. “Lobster pot,” was the explanation. Oh, well, even a sea monster isn’t immune to those.
Again the engine roared. Again the boat took a knee so the media people could climb down into an RIB and shuttle to the cocktail party. For Read and his colleagues, though, the real work was just getting started. “Everything was great in Newport,” he says, “but now we have to leave and race around the friggin’ world.”
The implied goal is to improve on last time’s second-place finish. If he’s successful, Read will become the third U.S. skipper to win the race. But Mar Mostro would be the first U.S.-flagged boat to do so. For more about the race, visit

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.